Explore America / Explore The Outdoors

Birding Paradise at Ouray National Wildlife Refuge near Vernal, Utah

I stumbled upon Ouray National Wildlife Refuge by accident. I was on my way to Fantasy Canyon, which is about 40 miles south of Vernal, Utah, on a recent road trip back to Denver. I saw the sign and decided to make a quick stop. Ouray National Wildlife Refuge was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1960. It provides nesting, resting and feeding habitat for migrating birds.  The diversity in habitats from desert to riverbed provides a haven for a wide variety of species.  With less than 8 inches of rainfall a year, northeast Utah’s desert landscape is a tough place for wildlife.  The Green River is a life-sustaining river in the arid area.  It meanders for 12 miles through the 12,138 acre-refuge.  The river provides a lush forest habitat for breeding songbirds and raptors along with mule deer, beavers and other mammals.  The marshes and wetlands provide migrating and breeding habitat for ducks, geese, cranes, herons, and hawks.  You might see an owl or porcupine in the cottonwood and willow trees.  The desert grasslands are home to pronghorns, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, western meadowlarks and reptiles.  Eight federally listed threaten and endangered bird species have been spotted in the refuge including whooping crane, peregrine falcon, osprey and bald eagle.  Four fish species have also been found in the refuge including Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker.

Things you can do at Ouray National Wildlife Refuge include driving the auto tour route, fishing and hiking.  The 12-mile self-guided auto tour travels through the wetland and riparian areas along the Green River.  It takes you up Leota Bluff where you get a spectacular view of the Green River bottom and much of the Uinta basin.  If you want to see desert wildflowers, visit in May and June.  I got treated to an array of fall colors along the river on my visit.

I was going to do the 12-mile drive, but the Sheppard Bottom Tour Route was closed because of road construction.  Instead of turning right to start the auto tour, I continued straight and saw a sign for a wildlife viewing site.  I wasn’t even out of my car for two minutes before some geese flew across the meadow.

Once back on the main road, I was intrigued with the plethora of fall colors along the river, which was a stark contrast to the painted desert landscape on the other side.  Looking up at Leota Bluff’s ridgeline, I saw some animals moving.  From a distance, they looked like cows.

I pulled into the small parking area at a boat ramp.  The landscape where the desert meets the water is stunning.  As I stood on the river’s edge, I listened to the calls and songs of different birds.  It was easy to see why this area is a birder’s paradise.  The fall colors were a bonus.

I spent about 10 minutes at the boat area and decided to drive a little farther up the river.  As I was about to pull out of the boat ramp parking area, what I thought was cows had moved closer to me.  They were desert pronghorn.  I watched for a few minutes then decided to explore a little more of the drive.  I loved the vivid yellows and other fall colors along the road. The thought of getting a better view of the pronghorns made me turn around.  My instinct was right.  They were very close to the road when I got back to the boat ramp area.  I stayed in my car watching the pronghorns.  It’s mating season, or rut season.  I quickly spotted a buck with a rack of antlers.  The rest didn’t have antlers, so I’m assuming it was a buck pronghorn and his harem since it is rut, or mating, season. 

Since I was in between the pronghorns and river, I decide to move on after watching them for a couple of minutes so they could continue on to the river.  I drove up Leota Bluff to an overlook so I could take in the expansive view of the Green River and desert landscape, including Dinosaur National Monument in the distance.

Author Jennifer Broome loves exploring the northeast corner of Utah. Check out blogs on Moonshine Arch and hiking Sound of Silence trail in Dinosaur National Monument.